The festival grew out of a local jazz scene that centred on Vancouver Co-op Radio (CFRO-FM), a community radio station, in the early 1980s. The Pacific Jazz and Blues Association was formed in 1984 and hosted the Pacific Jazz and Blues Festival, which showcased regional jazz and blues artists in addition to some international jazz musicians. By 1986, the group had changed its name to the Coastal Jazz and Blues Society, secured corporate sponsorship, and partnered with Expo 86 to produce the first annual Vancouver International Jazz Festival. The inaugural festival included performances by Miles Davis, Wynton Marsalis, Bobby McFerrin, Tito Puente, Tony Williams, Albert Collins, and John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers.
The jazz festival has been held every year since, becoming the largest such festival in British Columbia. Over 1000 volunteers help in producing the event, which includes performances in parks, community centres, concert halls, clubs, public plazas, and in streets of various neighbourhoods. In total, the festival includes 400 individual performances, including 130 free concerts, and it draws 460,000 people each year.